Intellectual debates about international nuclear disarmament may seem as quaint as the Whole Earth Catalog and pop-top Volkswagen campers, but a columnist in the online news source Crosscut last week made a number of valid points about why nukes still matter.

Washington state-based Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action doesn’t exactly enhance its “street cred” with website bulletins like Calling ALL Knitters: Join the Rewoolution!!!. But its central mission of questioning Cold War facilities and policies deserves the attention of ordinary citizens.

Gone are the days when TV news anchors like Walter Cronkite used to sonorously report that Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had clicked a minute closer to midnight – and nuclear Armageddon – on account of some incident of U.S.-Soviet saber rattling. (For the record, this symbolic clock most recently was set this Jan. 14 to five minutes to midnight.) But despite the fall of the Soviet Union, use and misuse of nuclear weapons remain a real possibility.

For most Americans, the thought that the U.S. or others might detonate a nuclear weapon in anger has receded far to the backs of our minds – rather like a hazardous backyard cesspool we have capped with a cement slab and almost forgotten. But for Tom Krebsbach of Ground Zero Center and his allies, nukes are more like a festering cancer that we neglect at our peril. On Jan. 18, Krebsbach trespassed at the U.S. Naval Base Kitsap at Bangor west of Seattle and was arrested to draw attention to this huge atomic bull’s-eye in the Pacific Northwest’s front yard.

Sadly, Krebsbach’s thesis that nuclear weapons “are the greatest threat that mankind faces” is debatable in light of a depressing number of other dire threats. But we need not get into arguments about what will kill us first in order to agree that “complacency is dangerous, because 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear weapons pose as much of a threat to life on earth as they ever have.”

As demonstrated by the long-simmering bureaucratic nightmare of cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the ultra-toxic substances generated for use in nuclear weapons are prone to accidents. Still operating under a thick shroud of secrecy, there no way of telling exactly how awful the mess may hide at facilities like the Bangor submarine base. Krebsbach cites this example:

“The Bangor submarine base has had its own problems. On Nov. 7, 2003, a 9-inch hole was punched into the nose cone, where the weapons are housed, of a Trident I missile aboard the USS Georgia by a ladder which had not been removed from the missile tube. Recently, the Navy reported a 150-gallon oily water spill in Hood Canal which turned out to be closer to a 2,000-gallon oil spill that created a 9-mile-long sheen in the water. Operations which need to be perfect to be fail-safe are anything but perfect.”

It also is fairly easy to imagine accidental or reckless use of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts. With tensions again growing between the U.S. and Russia, along with barely rational leaders in North Korea and erratic Islamic parties in Pakistan, it wouldn’t take much to start an exchange of atom bombs and missiles.

President Obama should be earning his premature Nobel Peace Prize by negotiating to defang arms races: not initiating new ones, as we threaten to do by beginning an aggressive new submarine-building program.

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